Study: US plutonium plan comes with budget, scheduling risks

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Every option considered by the U.S. government to ramp up production of a key component for the nation's nuclear arsenal will have cost and scheduling risks, according to a study by a nonprofit research center that specializes in national security issues.

The findings compiled by the Institute of Defense Analyses were delivered to Congress on Tuesday. The report wasn't made public, but officials acknowledged that it recognized the challenges of restarting production.

The National Nuclear Security Administration has proposed splitting the work between Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savanna River Site in South Carolina. At stake are jobs and billions of dollars in federal funding that would be needed to revamp existing buildings or construct new factories to support the work.

Elected leaders in both states have been jockeying for the lucrative mission. Some members of New Mexico's congressional delegation have resisted the nuclear agency's plan, arguing that production should be centered at Los Alamos — the once-secret city in northern New Mexico where the atomic bomb was developed decades ago as part of the Manhattan Project.

The mission of producing the cores has been based at Los Alamos for years but none have been produced since 2011 as the lab has been dogged by a string of safety lapses and concerns about a lack of accountability.

According to the latest assessment, if enough time and resources are focused on the effort, the plan to share production responsibilities between the two sites would be "potentially achievable."

The consultants also found that the price tag over the long term would be comparable to the other one-site options, despite some lawmakers' claims that costs would double.

"We have a lot of investments to make and work to do in New Mexico to ensure production work is done safely and on time. That has to be our top priority," said U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico. "The question as to whether to spend twice as much money on a separate product that won't be delivered on time or at all has an obvious answer."

NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty said the agency considered many factors before deciding on the preferred recommendation.

"Indeed, no option is without risk," she said in a statement. "We're fully committed to meeting military requirements, and our two-pronged approach at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site represents the best way to manage the cost, schedule and risk of producing no fewer than 80 pits per year."

Federal officials have set a deadline of 2030 for ramped up production, but some critics have questioned whether that can be met.

Nuclear watchdogs, government accountability advocates and other critics have cited a history of safety lapses and unchecked spending within the nation's nuclear complex as reasons that Congress should take its time in deciding the best path forward.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, said last week during a subcommittee hearing that the location of plutonium pit production will be "the most expensive decision" that the nuclear security agency is about to make and he believes Congress needs to play a role.